Little Bits of History

Early Computing

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 14, 2013
Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage

June 14, 1822: The Astronomical Society (Royal Astronomical Society since 1831) is presented a paper entitled “Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables.” The paper was presented by Charles Babbage. The paper’s proposal was for a mechanical calculator. It was designed to solve polynomial functions. Logarithmic and trigonometric functions can both be expressed by polynomials. A polynomial is either zero or can be expressed as the sum of one or more non-zero terms (infinite number of terms permitted).

Babbage’s time predates computers in the sense of a machine. However, in the 1800s, computers were people who solved math equations – or computed the answers. Unfortunately, the fallibility factor made the calculations unreliable. Babbage got funding from the British government and began to build his machine. When work did not progress as rapidly as was hoped and more funds were requested, all monies were withdrawn. Babbage improved his design and called his next version Difference Engine No. 2.

The first engine had about 25,000 parts, weighed 15 tons and stood 8 feet high. It was never finished. Engine No. 2 was finally built in 1989-1991 using Babbage’s plans and 19th century goods. It worked and the first result was calculated to 31 digits, more than the average pocket calculator. These early designs led to Babbage’s Analytical Engine. The second type of device was actually a series of machines and could be programmed using punch cards. Babbage’s machines have led us into the computer age even though they were not completed during his life.

The Difference Engine was built with columns which were numbered 1 to N. There was a four-step process for calculations with each successive step based on the result of the previous step. Gears were used to move levers. The machine could add and subtract, but not multiply. It produced, rather, nearby values for an unknown X. By some miracle of higher mathematics, this produced an answer via the method of finite differences. The Difference Engine finally built in the 20th century worked, but by then we had smaller, easier to use, electronic calculators. Phew.

“I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam.”

“Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all.”

“On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament], ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”

“The whole of the developments and operations of analysis are now capable of being executed by machinery. … As soon as an Analytical Engine exists, it will necessarily guide the future course of science.” – all from Charles Babbage

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Charles Babbage was born in London (exact location unknown) in 1792 (but this, again, is disputed and it was probably a year earlier). He was one of four children and his father was a banking partner until the family moved and he was then a warden of the local church. At about age eight, Charles was sent to a country school while recovering from a life-threatening fever. He attempted some public schooling, but his health issues forced him back to private tutors. Eventually he was well enough to attend Cambridge where he was dissatisfied with the mathematics department’s shortcomings. He was not, however, just a mathematician, but also a philosopher and a mechanical engineer as well as a political scientist. He died in London in 1871.

Also on this day: Which is Witch – In 1648, the first “witch” is hanged in Salem.
Maize – In 1789, Bourbon was first produced.
First Non-Stop Transatlantic Flight – In 19191 Alcock and Brown made it to Europe.